Say hello to the kind folks behind this Rochelle community cafe, which brings people of various income levels together for community fellowship over a warm meal.
Most people are familiar with the concept of a soup kitchen, but community cafés are different.
Community cafés, or PWYW (Pay-What-You-Want) cafés, are a contemporary trend sweeping across America. They provide people of various income levels access to healthy, affordable meals in a welcoming environment. Community cafés address issues of accessibility, affordability, availability and food waste, while increasing awareness of healthy eating habits.
The Kitchen Table, 7034 S. Klondike Road, Rochelle, offers one set meal with no set price. A free-will donation is requested instead. Volunteers and donations are the backbone of the community café model. Those who are well-off come to dine with those who are less fortunate, and all can serve as volunteers to further the mission of the community café.
The concept began in 1984 in Malaysia at a volunteer-run Indian vegetarian restaurant called Annalakshmi (Anna – food/Lakshmi – Hindu goddess of good fortune). Its motto was, “Eat what you want, pay what you feel, allow everyone the opportunity to enjoy a delicious vegetarian meal with no worries of cost.”
Utah resident Denise Cerreta opened a community café in America (One World Café) in 2003 in Salt Lake City. In 2006, she assisted Brad and Libby Birky in Denver, Colo., in opening S.A.M.E. (So All May Eat) community café.
Recently embracing this concept are Panera Bread Company and rock star Jon Bon Jovi. Panera opened a community café in Boston, Mass., by way of the Panera Bread Foundation, while the Jon Bon Jovi Foundation operates the “JBJ Soul Kitchen” in Red Bank, N.J. Both of these establishments were designed to address food insecurities and ensure that everyone has access to a nutritious and delicious warm meal at a time when one in six Americans now go hungry.
Locally, Carolyn and Grant Brown of Ashton, Ill., have always had big hearts for those who lack necessities such as food, shelter and clothing. They are known for dipping into their savings to help others in their times of need. They have even, on occasion, had strangers over to their home to eat. Carolyn, an accountant and tax preparer, and Grant, an industrial maintenance mechanic, were just the right fit to heed the calling to begin a community café in north-central Illinois.
For many years, Carolyn has held an Illinois Food Service Sanitation Manager Certification and cooked for church and community events where people would often tell her, “You should have your own restaurant!” She became widely known for her jars of homemade salsa and other products. This Tennessee native, easily recognized for her big heart and southern drawl, rapidly found her way into many people’s hearts by way of their stomachs. She brings to the north the kind of southern hospitality that doesn’t allow anybody to leave the table wanting for more.
Carolyn dreamt about the possibilities of transforming the abandoned Old Klondike Bar into a community café every time she passed it on Illinois Route 38 just west of Rochelle.
“I would look at it all the time,” she says. “I asked Grant to go with me to look at it. He told me I was nuts. He said I didn’t realize what kind of work and money it would take to bring the building back up to code. I said we should at least go look and maybe we could get it cheap enough that it would make it easier to rehab.”
Grant refused to entertain her curiosity.
But Carolyn proceeded anyway, and made an appointment on her own. When the day came, she convinced Grant to tag along.
“The day we looked at it in July 2012, we offered $5,000,” she says. “The realtor thought that was pretty funny since they were asking $58,000.”
The Browns left that day and figured the Klondike was not meant to be. Then, in January 2013, the realtor called to ask if they were still interested.
“I said ‘Sure, for $5,000,” says Carolyn.
The Browns negotiated the building and property for a little more than $6,000 and closed the deal on February 19, 2013.
Where most would have seen the property as fit for leveling to the ground, Carolyn saw a vision of a future community café.
“We had to tear down the back two-thirds of the building, as it was beyond restoration, but that front part, which was the newest part, we just had to save it,” she says. “The actual front bar portion had such amazing character. The walls were varnished Cedar planks and so beautiful. I could envision how it would look with all the antiques I had collected.”
Carolyn began to attend summit meetings for the nonprofit One World Everybody Eats, a spinoff organization from the original One World Café. She took notes during lectures and seminars on how to start and operate a community café.
The Kitchen Table officially began operating in June 2016 after establishment of a board of trustees, incorporation as an IRS 501(c)(3) registered charity, and more than $60,000 of the Brown’s personal finances invested to open the doors. Since 2012, many others have joined in offering their own time, talents and monetary donations to make the vision of a local community café come true.
The Kitchen Table seats 36 at a time, but meals are also sent out to the Rochelle homeless shelter and women’s center. Some meals can also be ordered for takeout at a set price. During special events, such as the Second Anniversary Celebration held June 30, 2018, many more people were served outside.
Besides providing nutritious, complete meals while protecting the dignity of the hungry, those involved with The Kitchen Table’s inception noticed how the cafe brought people together for fellowship in community. This was a pleasant side effect to The Kitchen Table’s mission, says Carolyn. In addition, people from the Ogle County court system have been able to complete community service hours at The Kitchen Table. Carolyn believes everybody deserves a second chance.
The Kitchen Table serves meals on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4:30-7:30 p.m. throughout most of the year, plus brunch the first Sunday of each month from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Menus are set monthly and are available at KitchenTableRochelle.org and social media pages. Meals cost around $3 to prepare, but clientele are not informed of meal costs unless they ask, Carolyn says.
The premise of the community café holds that those who are doing well pay a little forward for those who may be in need, so that the café remains solvent. Most community cafés function on a “volunteer only” basis, meaning most of the overhead is in building maintenance, utilities, property tax and cost of foods not donated. Nobody at the Kitchen Table is paid right now, but the board has a vision of hiring a manager to lighten the loads of Carolyn and Grant.
Board members have been touched by the generosity of those who have come forward to assist in their mission, Carolyn says. Serving teams have come forward from Rochelle Hospital, Monsanto Company, Holcomb Bank and several Kiwanis Key Clubs, among others. Tyson Foods, Hormel, Subway Restaurant, Monsanto Company and Del Monte are some companies that have made generous contributions of food and/or money to The Kitchen Table.
Carolyn reports that about 25 percent of people cannot afford to pay the cost of a meal, but 75 percent pay more than $5. Her biggest surprise and disappointment has been the lack of volunteers to help carry the load.
“I was naïve and thought that people would want to help,” she says. “Sadly, I was wrong. We have a core group of volunteers and random others.”
The board has sent out mass mailings to area churches to ask for serving teams of four to six people throughout the year.
“We sent out mailings to 55 area churches, twice, in Ogle, Lee and DeKalb counties asking them to partner with us, thinking we could pretty much cover a calendar year if each church took a week,” says an anonymous board member. “We got little response.”
It costs around $100 to $200 to prepare a meal for 50 to 100 people for a normal night. Some meals, like BBQ ribs, cost more. Carolyn is known to stretch a dollar to make ends meet, while food donations from local suppliers help keep costs down.
Some highlights The Kitchen Table enjoyed this past year were receiving two grant awards from the Rochelle Area Community Foundation (the latest one being $1,500), receiving a grant award of $2,500 from the Rochelle High School Interact Club, being featured on the front page of the Chicago Tribune on Thanksgiving Day, receiving 75 hams from Tyson Foods for the holidays, and, most recently, receiving a $7,500 grant from the Monsanto Foundation.
Rockford Urban Ministries visited with a contingency of people to dine at the cafe and ask questions since they, too, have felt the calling to open such a café in Rockford. Kitchen Table board members say they would be happy to offer advice, time and talents to guide them through the process.
“Always remember that if you can dream it, it can be achieved,” Carolyn says. “It just takes work and perseverance. We can’t change the world, but we can help change our communities.”